U.S. Immigration Reform: Is it possible?
U.S. Immigration Reform: Is it possible?

The much anticipated Gang of Eight’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 was finally released on April 16, 2013. Offering increased border security and a path to citizenship, this bill tries to appeal to both sides of the aisle. With Latinos holding much more electoral clout, Democrats and Republicans both want to demonstrate their seriousness about addressing immigration reform. Pro-immigrations group are hopeful that this legislation will be more successful than the last comprehensive immigration reform bill, which failed so miserably five years ago.

The bill faces both ideological challenges as well as practical ones. Fiscal conservatives worry about the bill’s price tag, both in the short-term and long-run, and will find it difficult to support a bill that would increase American debt. On the practical side, many worry about the bill’s timetable and the ability to truly overhaul the nation’s broken immigration system, which currently has a 4.5 million legal immigrants awaiting citizenship (McCaughey, 2013). The new bill will provide a path for an additional 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S.

This news analysis will highlight the provisions of the new immigration bill and compare and contrast long-standing arguments on whether or not the bill (and immigration in general) will improve the U.S. economy.

Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 Overview

The act covers four issues: border security, immigrant visas, interior enforcement and reforms to non-immigrant visas.

Border Security
The Department of Homeland Security will receive $4.5 million to create a plan to gain control of the southern border of the U.S, including surveillance systems, fences and drones. The goal is to have at least 90 percent of attempted entrants caught or turned away (Immigration Reform: Summary of Bipartisan Legislation). If the border control measures are met, then illegal immigrants will be able to start a 13-year path to citizenship.

Immigrant Visas and Reforms to Non-Immigrant Visas

Undocumented immigrants who have lived in the U.S. continuously since December 31, 2011 would be given registered provisional immigrant (RPI) status, allowing them to live and work in the U.S. and travel abroad.  They will pay a penalty fee and an application fee and must pass a background check. After five years, childhood entrants would be eligible for a green card and immediate citizenship and agricultural workers would also be eligible for an accelerated green card path. For the rest, RPI would last ten years and then they would be eligible for a green card based on merit (Singer, 2013). Newly documented immigrants would not be eligible for Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), or other federal services.

The awarding of visas would change as well. Single country limits would be abolished and the limits for family visas would be raised from seven to fifteen percent per country (Hesson, 2013). A new merit system would be created: visa for high-skilled workers (H-1B) would increase from 65,000 to 110,000, up to 180,000 if there is a need. Agricultural workers, who currently are not capped, would be capped at 112,000 for the first year, with a maximum of 337,000 at any given time. Low-skilled workers, new visa class “W”,  would be capped at 20,000 in Year 1, 35,000 in Year 2, 55,000 in Year 3 and 75,000 in Year 4; construction workers (who are classified as low-skilled workers) would be capped at 15,000 per year (Murray, 2013).

The merit-based system would be used for the next five years to clear current backlogs.  Afterwards, 120,000 visas would be issued annually; half would go to high-skilled workers and half to low-skilled workers. The number of visas per year could reach 250,000 depending on demand and an unemployment rate under 8.5 percent. There will be no annual limit for the RPI immigrants entering the system after ten years. Also, there will be no limits set for permanent residents who want to bring spouses and children (Hesson, 2013).

Interior Enforcement
There is a five-year phase-in for an E-Verify system that would check a person’s immigration status and would track travel outside the U.S. by visa-holders. While this ideas hold much merit, the price tag for creating and implementing such as a system will be considerable.

An Economic Boost or an Economic Drain?

Both pro-immigration and anti-immigration groups provide statistics to supports their claims. Making sense of these competing claims is not easy. The non-partisan Congressional Budget has not yet evaluated the cost of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013. Senate aids state it could cost $17 billion over a decade and that fines and fees generated could cover that cover and provide a few billion more. Most of the $17 billion would cover the extra law enforcement measures (Murray, 2013).

Marshal Fitz (2013), director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, claims that legal status and citizenship will provide a “powerful economic and fiscal boost.” He provides many statistics to back his claim. Legal workers earn higher wages and can pursue jobs that match their skill set, resulting in a 15 percent increase in wages after legalization. This translates into increased purchasing power and consumption.

Wages for all Americans would increase by $470 billion, generating 121,000 jobs annually for the next ten years. Cumulative GDP would rise by $832 billion and the federal government, as well as states and municipalities would earn $109 billion in tax revenue (Fitz, 2013). Fitz though does not address services and whether services consumed by immigrants would balance out the increased tax income.

Another pro-immigration advocate, Grover Norquist (2013), president of Americans for Tax Reform advocates reforming entitlement spending and the welfare system so that immigrants (and ordinary Americans) receive less services, thus, in theory, multiplying the benefits that immigrants bring to the economy.  Similar to Vaughan (below), Norquist does not distinguish between different types of immigrants, some of whom (such as agricultural workers) will not be able to stay in the U.S. with a smaller safety net.

Jessica Vaughan (2013), director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, argues that the positive economic impact of immigrants mainly benefits immigrants (98% of the $1.6 trillion in annual increases to the GDP). American wages would be reduced by the influx of immigrants and that the federal government would spends billions of dollars per year on health, welfare, education and public safety programs. Vaughan addresses the services side of the equation, though does not answer whether increased tax revenue would balance the equation. Furthermore, she does distinguish between different types of immigrants, such as job creators (i.e. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs).

Martha Tienda (2013), professor of sociology and demography at Princeton University, starts to parse the impact based on immigrant type.  Currently two-thirds of legal permanent residents are sponsored relatives that do not enter the formal workplace, as these residents grow older they will strain the economy, unless they are forced to buy health care. Legal immigrants will be required to buy healthcare, though according to Betsy McCaughey (2013), some will eligible for subsidized private health plans on the insurance exchanges, when other poor families are not, driving up costs and giving them unfair access to better insurance (better than Medicaid). While newly legalized immigrants with RPI status will not have access to these exchanges, they will still receive care through emergency rooms, the current status quo.

Is there a path forward?

The current immigration system bureaucracy must be addressed for this law to be successfully implemented. The Citizenship and Immigration Services is funded by applicant fees and is woefully underfunded. The agency charges its customers thousands of dollars. All immigration forms are paper-based and cannot be submitted electronically. This antiquated system is one of the reasons why there is such a long backlog. The prohibitive costs are one of the reasons why so many immigrants remain undocumented (West, 2013). Without addressing these challenges, there is no way the system will be able to process an additional 11 million undocumented immigrants, many of whom will not be able to afford the new fees.

Assuming, the Gang of Eight’s proposal provides a means to address the current system inadequacies, it still faces a long uphill battle. The bill provides tangible benefits for businesses of all sizes and could improve the U.S. economy through the admittance of highly skilled and knowledgeable immigrants and well as entrepreneurs. Immigration reform in the United States though is mainly about politics, not about the potential impact. Past attempts failed because there was enough pressure to prevent the legislation from moving forward. This time politicians will need to justify their votes to Latino voters, who are holding increasing amounts of political power. Maybe, this will make a difference.

Works Cited

Fitz, M. (2013, April 16). Legalized workers earn more and spend more. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/16/the-economics-of-immigration/immigration-reform-legalized-workers-earn-more-and-spend-more

Hesson, T. (2013, April 17). How immigration reform revamps employment visas. Retrieved from: http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/Politics/immigration-reform-explainer-employment-based-visas/story?id=18978680

Immigration reform: summary of bipartisan legislation (2013, April 16). The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from; http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/04/16/immigration-reform-summary-of-bipartisan-legislation/

McCaughey, B. (2013, April 17). Unhealthy immigration reform. American Spectator. Retrieved from: http://spectator.org/archives/2013/04/17/gang-of-eights-proposal-will-m

Murray, S. (2013, April 16). Immigration bill’s price tag an issue. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324345804578427170797280396.html

Norquist, G. (2013, April 16). People are an asset, not a liability. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/16/the-economics-of-immigration/immigration-reform-people-are-an-asset-not-a-liability

Singer, A. (2013, April 17). Immigration reform’s bold first step. Brookings. Retrieved from:

Tienda, M. (2013, April 16). Health and age of immigrants matter. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/16/the-economics-of-immigration/health-and-age-of-immigrants-admitted-to-the-us-matter

Vaughan, J. (2013, April 16). ‘More’ is not always better. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/04/16/the-economics-of-immigration/more-immigration-is-not-always-better

West, D. (2013, April 15). Inside the immigration process. Brookings. Retrieved from: http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/04/15-immigration-process-west

Leave a Reply

9 + = ten